Call Her Eller
Patty Duke comes back to Broadway in Oklahoma! -- and she ain't crawling.
By: Scott Logsdon

Patty Duke has literally grown up in front of audiences. From her breakthrough Broadway debut and Academy Award-winning role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker to her wonderfully over-the-top emoting in Valley of the Dolls, from her 1960s sitcom to her multiple Emmy Award-winning performances in TV movies to her authorship of the best-sellers Call Me Anna and A Brilliant Madness, she has rarely been out of the public eye.

If a common thread can be found within her work, it is of someone trying with all her might to communicate and to connect in one way or another. Duke has been a pioneer in bringing attention and compassion to the plight of people with manic depression, an illness she herself has battled and triumphed over. It seems only fitting that her return to Broadway should be as a strong pioneer woman: Aunt Eller in the Cameron Mackintosh-Trevor Nunn-Susan Stroman production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!.

TheaterMania spoke with Anna Pearce, a.k.a. Patty Duke, the week before her official Broadway homecoming on

December 14.

 

THEATERMANIA: I have to start by asking how many people lately have been quoting to you the Susan Hayward line from Valley of the Dolls that was directed to your character, Neely O'Hara: "They drummed you right out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway?"

PATTY DUKE: [laughing heartily] You're the first. You are! It's just because, when people meet me, I don't look like I used to and they don't know if they should say things like that to such an old lady.

TM: You're not old.

PATTY: No, I'm not, really. Not in heart. Or in spirit.

TM: You've said that you're a person who puts a great deal of stock in symbols. Is that why you opened in Oklahoma! on your birthday? Was it a symbolic rebirth?

PATTY: Well, I'd like to say it was a coincidence, but I sort of engineered it. I thought "Hey, I've had just about everything a person could get for her birthday but this: a Broadway opening!"

TM: Is it surreal being back in New York and preparing to go into a Broadway show after all you've been through since you were last seen here in The Miracle Worker?

PATTY: You know, "surreal" is the perfect word for it. I'll be walking down the street and say "That's where I told my mother 'Oh my God, it's Wednesday!'" and then ran off to the theater because I was late for a matinee. You know, there'll be a totally different building there. It's as if my senses are seriously heightened right now. Everything is either a sentimental symbol to me or has a good memory or a terrible memory. In some ways, though [the Oklahoma! people] don't know it, they're paying me to go through therapy again.

 

TM: How do you feel about the fact that The Miracle Worker is scheduled to be revived on Broadway during the period when you yourself have come back?

PATTY: I think, in a way, it's a very appropriate coincidence. I am thrilled, as a Helen Keller/Annie Sullivan fan, that the story is being told again and will receive the great attention it deserves again. I so love actors. Hilary Swank will only get the warmest support from me.

TM: I hope some of your friends and colleagues from over the years come to see you in Oklahoma!

PATTY: I hope so, too, but nobody can tell me! I cannot know who is in the audience; I get really freaked out. I was doing a play in Beverly Hills in this tiny, tiny theater and I had told everyone, "Please don't tell me who's in the house." And a man comes down the stairs and says, "You'll never guess who's in the audience!" It was Anne Bancroft!

TM: Okay, now your words are going to come back to haunt you. In Call Me Anna, when you mentioned doing the remake of The Miracle Worker for television [in which Duke played Annie Sullivan], you said: "The house they used was a yellow gingerbread and it looked wrong, like something from Oklahoma!"

PATTY: [laughing] You are unbelievable! Oh, that's hysterical!

TM: What is it about the show that drew you to it at this time?

PATTY: It answered so many immediate needs of mine and the longtime dream I've had, since I played Helen Keller, of being in a Broadway musical. What I actually said, when I was a kid, was: "I'm gonna be in a Broadway musical before I die." I've been very lucky in that certain projects came to me at different times in my life when there was a resonance. I want to try things that are unlike me, but in order to play any character, I have to find something about that character I can identify with.

TM: What about Aunt Eller spoke to you?

PATTY: Eller, I am finding, is a complex woman. She's been a surrogate single mother to that girl and she's Mother Courage to the rest of the town, in her way. There's one line, I'm sure you remember it, and it comes toward the end when she's talking to Laurey about things happening to people -- "sickness and being poor and even being old and a'feared of dying." For something completely subjective to pull out of the text and identify with, that certainly resonated with me. But the good news: What also resonates with me is her concept that you've gotta be tough or you don't deserve the tender and sweet times in life.

TM: Another thing that's happening at the same time as your return to Broadway is that the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, is opening -- and an actor named Sean Astin [Ms. Duke's son with actor John Astin] is in the cast.

PATTY: Of course, the star of it -- as far as I am concerned -- is Samwise Gamgee! Sean and the family were here for the premiere, so I got to see my granddaughters.

TM: If you could pick one adjective to describe yourself, what would it be?

PATTY: Eager.

TM: Do you hope Oklahoma! will be just the first page of a new chapter of your getting to work in New York and to originate roles on Broadway?

PATTY: From your lips to God's ears!

TM: Do you have any performance rituals?

PATTY: [laughing] I always wear my husband's dogtags in my brassiere. It's weird!

TM: In your book, you say: "Most of all, I connect with that desire to enlighten and to be enlightened before you die so you leave something behind."

PATTY: I said it and I meant it. And the quest goes on. "Quest" sounds as if it's almost unrequited, but I don't mean it that way. It is the constant recognition and renewal of trust that the love is there. That, and not giving up.

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The Duke of Old Broadway
By: Peter Filichia

So what does Patty Duke in Oklahoma! have in common with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? All of them are seen in the very first moment that their musicals open. The only difference, of course, is that Fanny Brice and Pseudolus are the main characters in their shows, and Aunt Eller isn't in hers.

Still, Duke got entrance applause at her opening in Oklahoma! on Wednesday, as she churned the handle on the machine Aunt Eller has been given in this production. She churned as Curly came on and sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." She churned as Laurey came on and sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." And she churned as Curly and Laurey sang about "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." I wondered if Duke's fans were thinking, "Is this all she's going to do all night long?"

She does have fans, as was proved by the Patty Duke Show Reunion of a few seasons ago, called "Still Rockin' in Brooklyn Heights." (Patty's a high school teacher who's directing Romeo and Juliet; her leads drop out just before opening night and so she has to go on as Juliet. In a high school play, mind you.) The reunion special began with a man with a microphone asking people if they could sing the song from Duke's 1963-1966 TV show, in which she played not one teenager (the cool Patty Lane) but two (her "identical cousin," the cultivated Cathy Lane). Well, there were plenty of fans who could easily warble, "Meet Cathy who's been most ev'rywhere, from Zanzibar to Berkeley Square" all the way to "when cousins are two of a kind." Yes, people remember.

Now Duke is back to Broadway after a four-decade absence -- unless you care to count an episode of the aforementioned Patty Duke Show that had to have been filmed sometime in early 1965. There's Patty Lane in Shubert Alley, passing by three-sheets for Barefoot in the Park, Poor Richard, Ready When You Are C.B., and The Subject Was Roses before she reaches the stage door of the Prager Theatre. (It's actually the Booth's stage door but it was renamed the Prager in honor of Duke's producer Stanley Prager, whom we know as Prez in the original cast of The Pajama Game as well as the director of Let It Ride, Bravo Giovanni, and Minnie's Boys.)

Patty Lane then walks past three-sheets for Hello, Dolly!, Any Wednesday, Luv, Fiddler on the Roof, and Ben Franklin in Paris. That's what caught my attention -- though I know we're supposed to be concentrating on the girl herself, who's wearing a sandwich sign that proclaims, "Stars of Broadway! My name is Patty Lane. I need your help." Seems that the overzealous Patty has promised her schoolmates at Brooklyn Heights High that she'll snag some big Broadway star to appear at their prom, and now she's so desperate that she'll pay $15 to whomever will do it.

Cut to Sammy Davis, Jr.'s dressing room above Shubert Alley. He was doing Golden Boy at the time, though that isn't yet mentioned. Davis's manager relates Patty's tale of woe, and Sammy -- with a heart as big as the great outdoors -- admires the kid's spunk, and decides to take the gig, even though his manager cautions him that the $15 will boost him into the next tax bracket. Sammy sends his manager to fetch Patty but she's already gone to the offices of Variety, where she speaks to the editor, played by Arthur Rubin, whom we know from the original casts of The Most Happy Fella, Kean, and Here's Love among many other shows. Patty wants to take out a full-page ad and hopes that the $8.35 she's budgeted for this will cover the cost. The editor turns her down but decides to do a news story on her. (Yeah?) So we then see a story in Variety headlined, "'Help,' Cries Moppet" (Duke was 18 at the time) "Patty Lane Seeks Entertainer" -- as if every Variety reader would know who Patty Lane is.

One might wonder how Davis could appear at the prom, given that he's got to do an evening show, but he tells his manager that he'll drop in at the prom after the performance. (Hmmm. Given that shows began at 8:30 in those days and it takes time to get to Brooklyn Heights from midtown, I'd say he'd be pretty late.) Sammy calls Patty at home and when he says "This is Sammy Davis, Jr.," she assumes it's her boyfriend Richard pretending to be the star. She says, "Yeah, and I'm the Gabor Sisters -- all three of them," a line that the laugh track people didn't bother enhancing with an artificial guffaw. (I would have loved it if Patty had said, "Richard, you're not Mr. Wonderful," but I guess we can't have everything.)

Patty hangs up on Sammy, but he calls back and, to prove who he is, sings a few lines of his hit record of three seasons earlier, "What Kind of Fool Am I?" (Interesting that he doesn't sing a song from Golden Boy, which still hasn't been mentioned at this point.) Patty hangs up again, then complains to Cathy (who won't be seen again in the episode) and her mother and father. (He, by the way, was played by William Schallert, whom I met last year. Schallert told me that he was president of the Screen Actors Guild at one time and sat on the board of advisors after his term expired. As it turned out, a subsequent president was Patty Duke. "I had the hardest time not treating her as if I were her father and she my daughter," he told me. "I really had to get out of that mindset.")

Anyway: While Patty's mother is pinning up her prom dress, the lass decides that she should head back to the Broadway theater district and see if she can talk to the real Sammy Davis, Jr. "You know what they say," she reasons. "There's no people like show people." She goes to a stage door that says "Majestic" (which is where Golden Boy actually played), between a three-sheet for Funny Girl and another for -- at last! -- Golden Boy. But Patty is rebuffed by a tough doorman. Only on her third try to sneak by him is she successful: She crouches behind a bunch of cops who waltz their way in as the doorman chummily says to them, "Comin' to see Sammy win the big fight again?" (At last! An allusion to Golden Boy, which did have an improbable Davis as a boxer.)

By the time Patty gets to Sammy's dressing room, she doesn't have the chance to ask him to attend the prom because dozens of autograph seekers are swarming all around him. (Hey, how did they get past that tough doorman?) Sammy leaves quickly, en route to Brooklyn to appear at the prom, though Patty doesn't know this. She goes to the big dance expecting the slings and arrows of her outraged classmates; but, when she arrives, there's Sammy singing a few bars of "What Kind of Fool Am I?"

It's a happy ending, of course -- just as there's ultimately a happy ending for Patty Duke in Oklahoma! Granted, her singing voice is a little gravelly and she was a little flummoxed by Hammerstein's quick wordplay in "The Farmer and the Cowman," but that latter problem should be fixed with a few more performances. Her timing on each of her comic lines is pinpoint perfect, and why should I be surprised? She's been a pro since the Eisenhower administration. (As Schallert told me, "I quite often forgot when dealing with Patty and Cathy that Patty Duke was only one person.")

Duke does a nice "Why not?" take when Ali Hakim wants to come into her house and show him her wares; she gives us the impression that, in those pre-radio days, she's doing it because he will at least provide some welcome entertainment. When you think of it, Duke is very right for the role, for Aunt Eller spends a lot of time getting Curly and Laurey together -- and that's pretty analogous to what the busybody Patty Lane did. The actress says it all when, as Eller, she proclaims: "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else, but I'll be damned if I ain't jist as good!" You're doin' fine, Patty Duke; you're O.K.!

 

 

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